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The Hypnotic Art of Storytelling

Alex Greene


This blog post goes back to the topic of hypnosis, and its use in roleplaying games - and not merely Mythras, but many other roleplaying games. In this post, the focus falls once again on the Games Master, and on the fine art of telling a story, through which they can guide the Adventurers.


The blog has already covered the topic of immersion. This time, the emphasis is on engagement. How can the Games Master draw in the players and make them feel involved in, and engaging in, the story or adventure?

Once again, we turn back to the language used by the Games Master - specifically, hypnotic language, and how to tell a story hypnotically and compellingly.


Milton H Erickson once said "All successful communication is hypnosis." The Games Master's job is to communicate. As Games Master, you set up the scenario, the incidental and recurring characters which crop up in the adventure, and even the scenes where nothing much is going on beyond combat. Even in combat, the job of Games Master is to make the cut and thrust of battle compelling, enough to keep the Players on their toes, and on the edge of their seats, anticipating the enemy's actions and hopefully coming up with moves of their own that the enemy does not anticipate.

But who are you communicating with?

The Player's Ally

Modern hypnosis is based on the understanding that the human mind is a mental iceberg. Only one ninth of it is visible: the rest of it is beneath the threshold of visibility, below the surface.

That 1/9 is what is called the conscious mind. It is a filter - the place where reason dwells. Everything else, the vast bulk of human mental processing, is the unconscious mind - unconscious, because it takes place beyond the realm of the conscious mind, not because it only comes on when the person is unconscious.

This is not the same as the debunked urban legend that we only use 10% of our brains. We use all of our brains, all of the time, and practically all of that functioning is going on behind the conscious mind. Which is a good thing, too, because if we needed to consciously breathe, the human species would be extinct.

The unconscious is where most of the mind's real, deep mental processes come from. Lived experiences and memories are also processed and stored here, in short-term, working, and long-term memories. When a perception enters the mind, the brain processes these perceptions and draws upon the stored engrams to determine the person's response to the perception.

For example, if someone accidentally stuck their hand in a fire, the brain would process the pain signals from the hand and draw upon the responses from similar pains in the past, accessing the pain response of jerking the hand away from the fire. This reaction would be as immediate as the nervous system would allow, and often too quick for the conscious mind to react.

The brain also accesses engrams and responds to them, even if the input is imaginary - such as when someone is telling a story or a joke, or you are watching a TV show with an exciting fight scene, or you are daydreaming about a meeting with a person you like, or reminiscing about some remembered time. Memories, dream imagery, and creations of the imagination - fantasies - can spark real physical, physiological, and emotional responses. This is the appeal of books, media, and of course tabletop roleplaying games.

Off The Peg Versus Bespoke

Which are more powerful - images created by commercial artists for use in a book, or images drawn from one's own unconscious mind? Arguably, creations of pure imagination are stronger than other people's imaginations put into print or onto screens. Your own imagination is strong enough to draw on its own rich library of emotionally-laden images, and you experience the attached emotions and imagined or remembered sensory perceptions - the light touch of an ex on the cheek, the rough skin of someone who'd forgotten to shave, the smell of woodsmoke from a campfire, the chill stinging of raindrops on the head, and so on.

It's the difference between watching a movie about a superhero, and imagining yourself as that superhero. The best movies use visual and storytelling cues to draw you, the viewer, into the story and see the world through the eyes of your favourite superhero. It is not the hero who is solving the crimes, punching the bad guys, and saving the day: it is you.

Everybody has access to sensations such as these, transcribed into the hippocampus in the form of engrams (your experiences). And everyone's engrams are different, because they've experienced different lives and picked up those sensations from different places, under different circumstances, and so on.

However, the words are symbols which trigger engrams, as a learned and common experience - so "you feel the breeze as the mace misses your head by a few inches" is a pretty universal symbol which triggers engrams in practically every player's brain, as if they'd engaged in a combat in person themselves.

The Games Master's Ally

You, as Games Master, have another ally, as powerful as the Players' unconscious minds: namely, your own capacity for emotion, creativity, imagination and ability to put the feelings and emotions into words.

What people connect to are the emotions and meanings behind the words. Unless there’s emotion, unless there’s a person there, unless there are ideas there that really speak to you, there is no meaning.

Your creativity, as Games Master, allows you to come up with situations and circumstances in your adventures which convey deep meaning to the players, their unconscious minds in particular. Unless there is a deep meaning that the unconscious can pick up on; unless there is something that the players' unconscious minds can read into; unless there is a why behind the what, who, and how; a game devolves into soulless number crunching, and you lose the interest of the players.

But what if you can present them with a situation, such as a hostage situation, a heist, a raid, or a mission to locate and retrieve a missing person from some dreadful den of vice and iniquity? What if the stakes are high, such as a race against time to find a cure for a disease before a loved one dies? What if there is some emotional weight behind a scenario, such as the players entering a high-stakes big purse sporting contest against a rival team?

There is an old formula much loved by hypnotists: Where attention goes, energy flows. Capture the attention - the imagination - of the players; give them stakes to pursue beyond the usual (Experience Rolls, drop treasure, a cash bounty); and you'll bring them into the game. You'll have succeeded in giving them immersion.

Next week, we'll pick up on this thread, and focus specifically on one system - combat. Next week, we go to war.

Edited by Alex Greene

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